A reflection on Veteran’s Day

One week ago was Veteran’s Day. I decided since I live in Washington DC I should visit Arlington Cemetery. Arlington is our nation’s cemetery for all those who have served in the armed forces, and it is where my grandfather lays. For as long as I can remember, Veteran’s Day, for me, was just another day off of school. I’d never celebrated it for what it represents, for whom it represents. Both my father and grandfather served for our country, as I’m sure so did many others in my family’s history that I am unaware of.

I am not at the top of the list of the patriotic, but I can appreciate what it means to be American. My life in America has meant the freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion (which I choose not to have and no one cares, it doesn’t matter), equal rights, a good education, being raised in a family that can support me because they enjoyed the same privileges I do. I understand this is not the same for every American. Growing up in America, for me, has never meant growing up as the 1%. I don’t need to be in the 1% to enjoy every amazing opportunity that has been presented. I have been given so much. I’ve never struggled. I’ve never needed. I’ve never been hungry, homeless. Living a good life in America does not mean existing in this percentage that people have made out to be the mega monster capitalists of the world. I’ve never even thought about those who have so much more than I do, because I’ve always had enough.

Focus. I am getting off topic.

To be an American, means that I appreciate that there are people who are willing to risk their lives for my freedom. People my age who die so that I may live.  People who sacrifice their own opportunity at college, so that they can protect the freedoms that are guaranteed to me in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. I don’t agree with many of our country’s policies, foreign and domestic, but our country’s policies are not what Veteran’s Day is celebrating. It honors those who have dedicated their lives to protect a country. A country that I can live in and where I can freely express my opinions. They fight for my freedom of speech- so that I can say, “I fucking hate that we’re fighting other nations. I fucking hate the act of war. War is disgusting and destructive and it’s pathetic that this is the best solution the so called ‘smartest creature on earth’ can come up with.” Veteran’s Day is about individuals. It’s not about war. It’s not about America. It’s not about democracy. It’s about people.

The range of emotions that I experienced those hours spent at Arlington were so scattered. It was as if a child dropped a bag of rubber balls. Every ball representing a different emotion. Bouncing off into a different direction. A scattered spectrum. I felt Pride. Anger. Privilege. Guilt. Despair. Happiness. Confusion….. But most of all, I felt sadness. Rock bottom sadness.

After visiting my grandfather’s grave, I walked over to the area that was designated for all those who have lost their lives since 2001.  Row after row after row of graves marked for people who should be alive. People who were a year older than me. People who were younger than my little brother. Row after row after row. Mounds of fresh dirt. Lives lost so recently grass hasn’t had time to grow, head stones haven’t been made. This is my generation. They don’t belong in the ground.

Parents sat before their children’s graves, posted up in folding lawn chairs, scarves, mittens and blankets in their lap, braving the crisp cold Virginia morning air, to spend Veteran’s Day with their sons and daughters. I saw one father wiping down his son’s grave, while his wife rearranged the flowers at the base.

While walking through a grave yard as massive as Arlington it’s easy to be overcome by the sheer size of it. The perfectly aligned rows of polished white stone. Each with the same lettering engraved upon the face. The exact measured distance between each row. It’s so overwhelming. So impersonal at moments. You forget that bodies separate each row. Thousands and thousands of people lay beneath the earth you walk on. A sense of distance is created in a graveyard when you walk though the rows, and you think of the people as those whose lives have passed. Those who have been under the ground long enough for their body to be reclaimed by the same earth that gave it everything it needed to live. But when you see that fresh mound of dirt, the one where no grass grows, the distance collapses. This is new. This just happened. Someone just lost the person they love most in this world.  The presence of the parents, distance collapses. These soldiers are children. They have mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. They’re not just soldiers. They’re not just faceless men at war, fighting in a far off land. A land you and I talk about, read about, which only exists for us in college lecture halls, on the tv, the internet. A place so fucking familiar, yet you and I will never go there. We’ll never know.

It really hit me in those moments that those gravestones aren’t just names and dates. They’re your neighbor, your best friend, your girlfriend, your fiancé. Your child. Your child. Your CHILD.  I kept coming back to the fact that all these graves were children. When I say child I don’t mean in the sense of a little kid. In the eyes of their parents, these were their children. It was the presence of all the parents that hurt my heart. It destroys the rule of nature, of decency, of logic, of everything that should be right in this world, to know that a parent buries their child. That a parent feels the pain of losing who they created. That’s not fucking right. Ever.

Seeing parents hug one another, comfort each other on this national day of loss, created that feeling within me. That one really heavy feeling that starts behind your belly button, and rises with pressure up through your chest, shoving against your rib cage, jamming itself against the bottom of your throat until that lump rises. Until tears flow. I kept trying to swallow, to resist the temptation to cry over people I had never met. Never would meet.

After wandering by myself for a bit I met back up with my friend who was speaking with a woman. I approached them and I heard her ask him to make a toast. She pulled out a Dixie cup, poured me a shot of Crown Royal, and we toasted to her son. I didn’t say anything. Language failed me. I couldn’t open my lips. Within minutes of meeting her I was choking back tears. They toasted to James, and then she told us the story of who he was, where he was, how he died. All of the details.  The pain in her story was unlike anything I’d ever heard. The words she used to describe how amazing, brave, talented, intelligent and missed her son was. She said he knew he was going to lose his life. How he called her and told her he felt it was going to happen soon and he just wanted to come home and never return again. How when it happened, in his last moments of life, he was still giving commands, making sure that those he lead and those who were hurt were taken care of. The story of someone’s loss, a mother’s loss, was unbearable. Her confession that things haven’t been right since. She hasn’t been the same and nothing makes sense. She doesn’t make sense to herself anymore. What it means to lose your child.

I had resisted writing about this for the past week because I didn’t know how. I didn’t know where to begin. The most important thing she told me was that her son asked her that if he were to die, that she would make sure that he was never forgotten. “Just remember me.” That he would continue to live in people’s memories.

I am not going to retell the details she told me. Her sharing of his life is something that will remain forever stored in my own memory. Rather, I’m sharing my experience with you, and the pictures, because it allows us to share a common, if general knowledge. A knowledge of lives lost. Children gone. For you and I. War is fucking awful and dirty and it takes people away from one another. It erases individuals who should be here. Be present. That is Veteran’s Day. Not forgetting.

“To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. At its core, perhaps, war is just another name for death, and yet any soldier will tell you, if he tells the truth, that proximity to death beings with it a corresponding proximity to life. After a firefight, there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness. All around you things are purely living, and you are among them, and the aliveness makes you tremble. You feel an intense, out-of-the-skin awareness of your living self- your truest self, the human being you want to be and then become by the force of wanting it. In the midst of evil you want to be a good man. You want decency. You want justice and courtesy and human concord, things you never knew you wanted. Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost. You are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not.”

You’re not ignorant because you don’t know… it’s when you choose not to listen

A few weeks back I went to a committee hearing on the status of Sudan and Southern Sudan, and the problems still plaguing the region. It was my first hearing and I didn’t know what to expect. I arrived to a room already overcrowded and people lining the walls. Video cameras were set up in all corners to film the hearing, and members of the press were taking photos of people, who I had no idea as to who they were. There were no open seats left, but I spotted a deep windowsill against the far wall. I awkwardly shuffled my way through rows of people sitting down, bumping the backs of my legs into everyone’s knees. Every time I am forced to walk through a row of seats I never know if its polite to put my butt in their face as I squeeze through, or if I should face them, bumping knees with theirs and probably hitting the people in the row in front with my butt. I’m not even that big of a person. I can’t even imagine how uncomfortable the situation could be.

I digress….

I eventually made it to the other side of the room after many times of “excuses me” and “ sorry.” I took a seat in the windowsill, with a perfect view of the committee and witnesses. They opened an overfill room and began to ask everyone who didn’t have a seat to leave, and watch the hearing from the TVs provided in the extra room. Technically sitting on a ledge in the wall wasn’t a seat, so I tried to act invisible, hoping that no one would see me, as they simultaneously kicked out every intern who was taking up room. This was my first hearing and it was on a topic I was really interested in, and watching the events take place via TV wasn’t going to be the same. After about ten minutes of anxiously waiting I had made it through and they closed the heavy wooden doors to the room. A committee of about ten members of Congress sat at the front, and then about eight people testified over the next 2 ½ hours. There were ambassadors who spoke, members from the UN, John Prendergast from the Enough Project (undeniably the best speaker I have ever listened to), a journalist and host of a political radio show, and finally a testimony given by an 18 year old boy, who had recently been freed from slavery in Northern Sudan.

I went into this meeting with absolutely no idea of what was to come and what expectations to have. I hadn’t expected to cry. I hadn’t expected it to change my life. I hadn’t expected to feel utterly crushed afterwards. The hearing addressed the issues Southern Sudan is facing as the newest nation on earth, and the problem of famine, conflict and slavery. Maybe I’m incredibly naive, but I wasn’t even aware that slavery still existed, let alone the torturous conditions that slaves survive under. Ker Deng had won his freedom from slavery after an American nonprofit group which functions in Sudan bought him from the man who had acted as his master for over ten years. Deng sat before the members of Congress and through a translator, a survivor of the Lost Girls, asked for help for the people of his country, for the thousands who are still enslaved, for his mother and younger siblings who were not as fortunate as himself. He wore sunglasses to shield his eyes as he described the horrific treatment he received, the conditions he lived under since being a child, and the day that his master rubbed so much chili in his eyes he became blind.

 

Pictures from where I was sitting after a seat opened up.

From his testimony…

“He said that when he was a toddler, Arab raiders from the north came and invaded his village, burning their huts,  killing the men and tieing the women and children to camels and dragging them to a life of slavery in the north.
Ker said he was treated worse than the animals he tended.  He was beaten every single day, and was fed grain just like the horses. But he said the worst thing that his slave master did was, in a fit of rage, he tied Ker upside down to a  tree and rubbed hot chili peppers in his eyes, blinding him. “

http://www.voanews.com/english/news/africa/Freed-Sudanese-Slave-Testifies-to-US-Congressional-Panel-131110293.html

An uncomfortable lump rises in my throat and tears begin to fill the brims of my eyes just remembering. Memory is so incredibly powerful. I’d never heard such pain come from one person. No matter who I know in America and what they have experienced, it just— doesn’t even begin to compare. I will never come close to experiencing anything like what Deng spoke of. And he is just one. JUST ONE. It was so, shocking, for lack of a better word. I just couldn’t believe that I didn’t know about this. That no class I had ever taken had addressed this issue, that I hadn’t heard about it in the news. I wouldn’t call myself an uninformed person or someone who is blind to the problems of the world, but I had no idea.

I left the meeting feeling crushed under the weight of reality. How fucked the world is for so many. I felt the complete and total frustration of all those who spoke that day at the hearing, expressing their anger at the lack of progress in the area. The lack of participation by the American government. Sudan is the largest country in Africa and we are hardly involved. Humanitarian aid is not sufficient for the needs and demands of this area. So So So many people are dying. In America we continue to bitch about the injustices of the past, the horrors of our own country’s slavery. Well if we’re so upset by it why are we not stopping the slavery that current exists???!!! Why isn’t this talked about? How do we continue to turn a blind eye to this??

I left Mad. Upset. Guilty. Broken. Devastated. Frustrated. Defeated.

But a part of me left inspired. I felt moved. I felt passionate. I felt like I had found something that I could care about so incredibly that I could spend my life working on this issue.

Since that original meeting I have been to two more on foreign policy and Southern Sudan, and the Lord’s Resistant Army, who are just as awful as the government of Sudan. If you don’t know about the LRA please take 10 minutes out of your incredibly comfortable lives to inform yourself.

These issues may be taking place in Africa, but we are a global community, and therefore their problems are ours. Africa is incapable of solving its issues that have stemmed from colonialism and tribal warfare. This much is clear. They do not have the resources or coordination to combat terrorist groups that commit crimes against humanity, whether that be abduction of children and forcing them to act as soldiers against their own families and people, mutilation, torture and murder of other Africans, or preventing food aid from being delivered, so as to starve people into submission. Many of their governments are corrupt beyond repair and only a total revolution and overthrow could fix these. But a revolution has no energy when those who must act are being starved.

And we call Occupy Wall Street our own revolution. First World problems are hardly problems when placed on the global scale. We are spoiled and we demand when all our needs are not met. This is not our revolution. We need to refocus our efforts elsewhere.

Over the past two weeks I have done more research on Sudan and the issues that came up in the meeting. I have talked with many people who are familiar with these issues. There are so many problems it’s hard to know where to start. It’s overwhelming to even try to focusing on one point without realizing that something else is just as important and the two are tied so closely together.

I can’t choose what anyone does with their life, and I can’t tell everyone to go into aid work for Africa, nor can anyone one person or group attempt to save a continent plagued by decades upon decades of the world’s worst problems.

Just, be informed.

http://www.enoughproject.org/

http://www.enoughproject.org/LRA

http://www.enoughproject.org/conflict_areas/sudan_south_sudan

http://www.enoughproject.org/blogs/congress-seeks-way-forward-sudan-invites-enough-perspectives

(I made it that much easier for you.)

I want to work for him, he is incredible- http://www.enoughproject.org/staff/john-prendergast-co-founder

For something lighter after all this…Thank you Cobert

http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/392263/july-18-2011/john-prendergast